PITTSFIELD -- During the early part of her athletic career, Monument Mountain High School senior Haley Korte viewed players from rival schools as the enemy.
Now, ahead of the Girls National High School Rugby Championships that begin Saturday at Taconic High School, Korte -- one of the leaders of the Berkshire United rugby club girls team -- said her teammates, players from schools all over Berkshire County, are like family to her.
"Honestly, when I first came [to Berkshire], I hated every other team, because I played sports against them and I'm really competitive," Korte said. "But I love them now, they're my family."
That sense of family is the driving force behind the Berkshire United girls rugby club. The club was formed two seasons ago by club President David Colli. During its two seasons, Berkshire finished in the top two in Massachusetts twice. Now, the mix of girls are coming together for a chance to compete at the national level.
Assistant coach Luke Bloom said the sense of togetherness fostered within rugby makes the sport special.
"It's the sense of family," he said. "It's a place to belong. A safe, fun, healthy place to be. That was important to me and I know it's important to these girls."
Confidence and chemistry is high within the Berkshire program. The team is seeded fourth in the Division II bracket. They'll face No. 5 Kingston (N.Y.) a team they've beaten twice before. Bloom said the growth the team has shown is impressive.
"As Americans, we're kind of at a disadvantage because we don't really grow up with rugby," he said. "It's really new to a lot of people, so we have to break a lot of bad habits. ... To watch them excel the way that they have has been great."
Rugby is gaining popularity around the country, and players on the Berkshire team were attracted to it for several reasons.
Taconic's Ashli Reese and Mount Everett's Deseraye Conaway are first-year players who chose rugby because it offers a level of physicality that other sports don't.
"Two of my best friends, Malik Wilbon and Jared Mead, play on the men's team," Conaway said. "They said they wanted athletic girls to play. I hated softball, so I figured I'd try something new."
One of the biggest adjustments for new players is learning the rules and techniques. Reese said she's enjoying the learning process.
"My first game I didn't know anything [about rugby]," Reese said. "But I learned to tackle and I learned the game. I'm still getting better, but I think I'm doing good so far."
Veteran players like Korte, Jessica Esperanza of Taconic, and Wahconah Regional's Jocelyn Latvalla and Ashley Lareau have taken leadership roles, helping to get their new teammates up to speed.
"Usually I give the motivational speech [before games], and if the girls have a question, I tell them to come to me," Esperanza said.
Colli said one of his goals when he applied to host the tournament was to increase the club's profile. Now, his club is three wins away from a possible national title.
"I'm expecting the game to be very physical," Korte said of the Saturday 11:10 a.m. opener. "Every time we've played [Kingston] it's been very physical and really close. I'm expecting to have a lot of bruises afterward, and I'm expecting to have fun."
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If you go ...
What: Girls National High School Rugby Championships
Host team: Berkshire United
Where: Taconic High School athletic fields
When: Friday, opening ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Saturday games begin on two fields at 9 a.m. Sunday, games begin on two fields at 8:30 a.m. Championship games begin at 12:15 p.m.
Tickets: $10 each day for adults, $5 for high school students. Children under 14 free.